Isle Return

Text by Michael Jernigan

Neither my wife nor I come from a family of rolling stones, but we recently retired early, started second careers, and moved to the sunny Caribbean. We considered several islands, finally settling on the tiny British overseas territory of Grand Cayman, which got the nod in part because it hadn't experienced a severe hurricane in recent memory.

Our friends envied us on the surface, but deep down many thought we were absolutely crazy. Why would anyone walk away midcareer from two secure jobs, pack up their 11-year-old daughter, and move to an island in the middle of nowhere?

Why, indeed? Setting up housekeeping on an island these days is a tremendous undertaking, fraught with challenges. But we truly believed that, after navigating those initial difficulties, we would enjoy the simpler lifestyle we craved.

Once we settled in, that's exactly what happened. Until the middle of our third week in paradise, when we got our first harsh lesson in Caribbean living: Weather doesn't always follow established patterns.

Just days after the last of our possessions finally arrived on the island, Ivan the Terrible became the first hurricane in a generation to take direct aim at Grand Cayman, forcing us to make a hurried escape.

Back in the States, we watched helplessly as Ivan pummeled our new home. Days passed before we heard from our Cayman friends. Our house, though damaged, had survived, but it was eight weeks before we could return to see the destruction firsthand. The island was almost unrecognizable. Entire communities had been virtually wiped out. The lush green paradise we left behind was now a dingy, brown mess covered in a twisted maze of splintered trees festooned with debris from cars to carpeting.

But life gradually returned to normal. Storm refugees returned, businesses reopened, and cruise ships came back with their precious cargoes of tourists. Once again, we settled down to living our dream―strolling empty beaches, watching spectacular sunsets, and learning the meaning of patience and "soon come" as it relates to getting anything done in the Caribbean.

The 6.8 earthquake a few weeks later seemed anticlimactic. Like the hurricane, it was the first to rock Grand Cayman in living memory, dumping books from shelves, knocking our paintings askew, and leaving us all shaken and stirred. A hurricane was always a possibility, but an earthquake, too? What next, we wondered― a volcano, or the island sinking, Atlantis-like, into the sea?

Still, as friends back home complained of winter weather, we smiled. As our daughter snorkeled instead of sitting in front of a TV, we felt content. As we looked out our windows at turquoise seas and a riot of recovering hibiscus and bougainvillea, we couldn't help but feel inspired by the beauty.

Months passed, though, and it became clear other wounds left by Ivan would take longer to heal. Economic recovery, though steady, could not keep pace with that of the tropical blooms. Expenses climbed even higher as businesses and utilities struggled to recoup losses. After a year, we reluctantly put our island dreams on hold and returned to the States to regroup.

Those who thought we were crazy in the first place now look at us knowingly. "Bet you wouldn't do that again," they say. "We fully intend to," we reply, "though hopefully our timing will be better next time."

Our biggest regret is not that we went, but that we had to come back. We lived out our dream, and one day we will again.